Politics & Government

Past and current U.S. House speakers to honor Henry Clay in Lexington

As a U.S. senator, Henry Clay presented his Compromise of 1850 to save the Union. Future U.S. president Millard Fillmore was presiding, John C. Calhoun was right of Fillmore, and Daniel  Webster, to the left of Clay, listened with his head in his hand.
As a U.S. senator, Henry Clay presented his Compromise of 1850 to save the Union. Future U.S. president Millard Fillmore was presiding, John C. Calhoun was right of Fillmore, and Daniel Webster, to the left of Clay, listened with his head in his hand.

The speaker of the U.S House of Representatives and three of his predecessors will pay tribute to Henry Clay at a Lexington event June 24, the 200th anniversary of Clay's ascension to the House's top post.

Many historians say it was Clay, Kentucky's leading politician in the early 1800s, who made the speakership the powerful position it is today. Clay served three times as speaker during his years in Congress, longer than anyone else in the 19th century.

Participating in the event to honor Clay will be House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio; U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; and former U.S. Reps. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Jim Wright, D-Texas.

Shaye Rabold, director of the Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship, said organizers remain in contact with former U.S. Rep. Tom Foley, D-Wash., who might be able to attend. The only other living former speaker, Georgia Republican Newt Gingrich, declined the invitation because of a scheduled presidential campaign fund-raiser in Atlanta.

Boehner, Pelosi, Hastert and Wright will hold what is being billed as a "historic conversation" about their experiences as House speaker during the tribute, to be held at Transylvania University, where Clay was a law professor and served on the school's board of trustees.

The tribute is one of several activities planned for the inaugural Henry Clay Week, June 18-24, beginning with the annual summer lawn party at Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate on Sycamore Road.

Also, The Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship's fourth annual Student Congress will bring 51 college students from around the country to Lexington for a week of seminars focused on Clay, his role in history, and the concepts he promoted of reconciliation, peace-making and compromise.

Clay's nickname was the Great Compromiser.

David and Jeanne Heidler, authors of the 2010 biography Henry Clay: The Essential American, will speak at the first session of the Student Congress.

"Prior to Clay in 1811, the speaker of the House was largely a glorified parliamentarian who managed floor debate and enforced rules in terms of moving legislation through the process," David Heidler said Tuesday in a phone interview from his office in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Clay took an active role in making committee assignments, so "committees became the real engine behind getting legislation enacted," Heidler said.

The Kentuckian was attentive to making sure all regions and factions were represented, but he also was careful that his supporters were in a majority on important committees, Heidler said. As a result, the importance of Clay's agenda was elevated while his opponents were marginalized but not excluded, he said.

As Clay transformed the role of speaker, "he became as important as the president of the United States," Heidler said.

Organizers of Henry Clay Week hope to raise awareness of Clay and his significance to the country's legacy, said Bill Giles, president of the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation, which operates Ashland.

Speaking at the news conference, Mayor Jim Gray noted that he saw a full-length portrait of Clay hanging in the office New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg when he visited Bloomberg earlier this year.

"Henry Clay was all about entrepreneurial thinking, all about innovation and imagination," Gray said. "That is his legacy and gift to us in Lexington today."

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